November 25, 2005

Spoon-feeding students?

The first and best teaching advice I received came from my master teacher, Randy Thatcher. When it came to instruction, Randy told me to “spoon feed” my students as if they were infants only able to swallow a small amount or spoonful at a time. I was getting ready to teach Julius Caesar for the first time. I was so excited about the play, and there was so much that I wanted to share, that my first day teaching the unit was something, well, special. Special to me. I was up there, doing my thing, having a great time, selling it to the audience. But the audience was not buying it. A simple case of too much too fast. Way too fast. Later I would learn to write “Slow Down” on the chalkboard opposite from where I lectured just to remind me that not everybody loves what I am teaching as much as I do. Nor do all the students begin from the same place. It’s more like a staggered track start. Even with kids you’ve had in class all year. Whether you are teaching Shakespeare or shapes, the students always run the gamut in their preparation, understanding, abilities, and level of interest. How does the teacher reach the diverse group and lead them to a common goal? Spoon-feeding.

Spoon-feeding? You mean, like a baby? Isn’t that condescending to the students’ ability levels? Plus, if we break everything down into small parts for the students, what’s left for them to do? Don’t they have a responsibility in their own learning careers? Good questions.

Yes, spoon-feeding. As teachers, it is our job to make the material digestible to students. At least it’s our job at the primary and secondary levels. Plus its just good lesson planning. Once we have reduced the content of our lessons to the smallest possible portions, then we can mange those portions appropriately for our students. Every student is different and every class is different. So being prepared with lessons comprised of components that can be rearranged based on student need means that we can effectively reach and teach the students we have. Of course, that means more work on the teacher’s part, but hey, isn’t that part of the gig? If you design your curriculum right the first time, and break it down so that you can pull out components like cards from a deck, then that job is done. Now you can focus on attending to the needs of the kids, and not be distracted by trying to “stay one day ahead” of the class. Difficult, perhaps impossible for first and second year teachers, especially with BITSA and all the other hoops they are required to jump through. That’s where the vets step in. If you are a veteran teacher and you have never offered to help out a newbie, then shame on you. Randy was one of three master teachers who gave me everything they could, and what a difference it made in my first few years.

Now I teach technology, computer multimedia. I teach kids how to manipulate images digitally, to create their own web sites, to animate using the computer, and digital video production. It’s a blast. I was guided into opportunities that have now placed me an ideal situation for me. I love my subject matter and it’s a joy to teach it to the students. However, when I started, I had no curriculum. There was nothing to spoon-feed. So where to begin? I was assigned a few video courses. I wanted to teach them like film production courses, so I went to the NYU web site. There I found lots of useful information that I adopted, and have since changed significantly to fit the needs of the newer multimedia courses.

Once I had a handle on what I wanted to teach, the next goal was to determine how best to teach it. I looked to and included the California Standards in everything I wrote. I took each unit and broke it down into parts. Then I broke the parts down into steps. I wrote each step in a lab manual that I use everyday in class. That way if a student falls behind, or wants to work ahead, it’s all in the book. In the classroom I begin with a lecture. I ask the kids to take notes, but I do not collect them. Once I’ve covered theory, background, and vocabulary, I demonstrate while the students watch. Once they’ve seen the entire demonstration, and have an accurate idea of what to do, its there turn. I cruise the room answering questions and offering tips while the students learn by doing.

Here is a link to a page where you can download the multimedia manual, multimedia lecture notes, multimedia PowerPoint presentations and another manual I wrote for leadership: Curriculum Downloads.

The rest of the time in class is spent sharing life stories, theirs’ and mine, but more of mine. Kids love to hear about the lives of adults. We all love stories. There is something about hearing someone else’s experience that makes us feel less lonely, less absurd, and for high school kids, less different. Even the high school seniors are still just babies who need to be treated appropriately.

It’s very important that we teachers understand what that means, to treat our students appropriately. One of my mentors and colleagues with 3 times as much experience as me has been known to say, “they (the students) can’t do it (the curriculum).” Harsh, but true. Students can’t absorb massive amounts of information and be expected to learn anything unless it is presented in a format that is appropriate to them. Spoon-feeding.

Please post your comments below.

November 11, 2005

Who Cares? Teachers!

Teachers care. That's why we teach. We care about our students. We care about the future. We care about our communities, our country, and our world. Caring is a prerequisite for teaching that does not appear on anyone's resume, and is not taught in any teacher prep program. Caring comes naturally to those of us called to teach. We teach because we care. Sounds so sappy, just dripping with compassion.

But teachers are compassionate. Well most of us are anyway. Compassion is a virtue diminishing in many circles these days. More and more I hear kids says, "Why should I care? It doesn't effect me," or "It's not my responsibility," and "That's their problem, not mine." True statements all, but so sad to hear, especially from kids. Where do they get that attitude? Oh wait, kids take their cues from adults, right? Teachers are adults, well they're suppose to be anyway. Parents are adults, again, suppose to be. So is this self-centered attitude a kid problem, or something even bigger?

Obviously something bigger, much bigger, and it's like a cancer eating away at the very core of our culture. It's taking away from us the things we love, and the the things we love about being people. For example, I love the football program at my high school. I love and value it so much, that for the past five years I have given up a significant amount of my weekends to support the coaches in the endeavor to build the young men who participate in the program. But the coaches are climbing a slippery slope, fighting against this culture cancer where kids are often unwilling and sometimes unable to follow through with their commitments, and easily lose heart. They let each other down, and there the cancer spreads.

Some call it apathy. A student in my classroom yesterday said a project that I work on with my advanced students "sucked." A very popular adjective among the high school crowd. That sent me. I went off on a diatribe explaining how easy it is to criticize, especially when the criticizer does nothing to contribute to the culture and community they live in. They are the takers, the destroyers, and their behavior, the cancer. I pointed out a young black girl in my class who spends everyday after school leading a step dance team. She has never, and would never openly and cheaply brand anyone else's effort to improve their community with such a vulgar expletive. I also pointed out an athlete who literally "leaves it all on the field." Two weeks ago he left the field during a game with an injury that may cost him the rest of the season. "Sucks to be him," I can hear the apathetic declare. No, wonderful to be able to suffer for the benefit of others. But that's where we are.

The lines are clearly drawn these days between the givers and the takers. The cancer runs unchecked among the apathetic life-sucking leaches who greedily seek out opportunities to grow their numbers. They revel in their own self-pity, and will gladly insult you for your arrogance in working to better yourself, your community, and your world. The same world they inhabit, waiting impatiently for the next disappointment, the next let down, the next giver to fall down into the depths of their own personal hell. This cancer is real, and spreading.

Who will fight the cancer? Teachers. The real super-heros of our age. We are the role models. We are the champions of right. We are the ones who are dug deep in the trenches of the battlefield, fighting daily the attitudes of the wicked young. Not all teachers see themselves this way. That is a problem. If teachers are not fighting the "Battle of Who Could Care Less" then they are contributing to the problem. The cancer has got a hold of them like a giant artery and is rapidly spreading to every student they instruct.

But there is hope. Good will prevail, and cancer can be fought, even controlled. It's up to the teachers to be positive optimists focused on life's loves. Teachers need to support the efforts of their students to go out and contribute to the success of their community. Teachers need to discourage the apathy, to snuff out the discontent, and to motivate those entrusted to their realm of influence to become better then they believe they can be. Impossible task? Somedays it feels that way. But if we teachers lose our compassion. If we lose that part of us that truly gives a damn, then what? If our schools are not safe-havens of hope for the future, then the cancer will truly take over.

Teachers love to point to the parents' responsibilities for their children's behavior. "What can we do about them?" I know an administrator who is fond of saying, "The only thing we can't change is the kids that we get to teach." Wow. We all live with some form of family. Families are places where life is uncontrollable. And every family is unique and different. The way it should be. School is not a family. School is a place where we can control far more of our circumstances, everything other than the "kids that we get to teach." At school we can structure our days, define our goals, and guide our pupils towards a desired result. Schools can be manipulated, families cannot. This is almost another topic entirely, but educators are influential in the lives of their students in ways that parents and families cannot be. I control my classroom and the events that occur within. I wish I could say the same for my family.

So, the teachers must fight the apathetic cancer battle in their classrooms every day because that is where the difference will be made for our students, our futures, our communities, our country, and our world. The teachers must care, sappy, or not.